Various Artists: Boogie Breakdown: South African Synth Disco 1980-1984

DJ Okapi compiled Boogie Breakdown.

Not much music got out of South Africa in the late apartheid era, but Hot Chocolate and Keith Sweat must have gotten in.

Various Artists

Boogie Breakdown: South African Synth Disco 1980-1984

Label: Cultures of Soul
US Release Date: 2016-09-23
UK Release Date: 2016-09-30

In order to appreciate Boogie Breakdown: South African Synth Disco 1980-1984 fully, a brief bit of history is necessary. During the apartheid era, the United Nations sanctioned an embargo on South Africa. It was a military arms embargo but also a cultural embargo, meaning that not much South African popular art was exported during that time. It is safe to say, then, that the music featured on Boogie Breakdown has rarely been heard outside of South Africa.

But the current age of crate-digging and rare groove scouring has allowed this music to make it out of the cultural dustbin. And these 12 tracks, two each from six different acts, make it clear that if South African music didn’t often make it out, Western music surely made it in.

With a few exceptions, the songs on Boogie Breakdown could be lost late disco-era recordings from New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, maybe even London or Paris. The singing is all in English, and the music is as slick and cleanly-produced as anything from the era.

As its subtitle suggests, the early 1980s marked a time when synthesizers and drum machines were becoming ever more prevalent in disco. The result was a sound that was definitely less cheesy and more modern. Especially given the current ‘80s-centric musical climate, most of Boogie Breakdown holds up pretty well.

Don’t expect a lot of four-on-the-floor stompers. This stuff is more diverse than that. The Cannibals’ “Hey Tonight” is rooted in thick, midtempo funk, with some ponderous, proggy guitars mixed in, too. The middle breakdown actually sounds like Pink Floyd. Not something you’d expect from an album called “Boogie Breakdown”. Of course, there are squiggly P-Funk-style synths and thumb-popping bass, too.

The one straight-up dance track is Harari’s “Party”. It’s a good one, too. Chicken scratch guitar, phased-out bass, groovy Clavinet, and chanted vocals come together in a way that’s almost as mean as Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s a Winner”.

As Boogie Breakdown progresses, things quickly move toward a more smoothed-out sound that was surely influenced by European synth pop and American R&B. Some tracks even seem like doppelgangers of contemporaneous American material. Don Laka’s “Let’s Move the Night” sounds like Keith Sweat covering Ministry’s “Work for Love”, while Neville Nash’s “Perfect Love” sounds more than a little like Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”.

If there are any hints this music was not produced in the Northern Hemisphere, it comes in the form of Benjamin Ball’s patois-infused, dancehall-style “Flash a Flashlight”. It’s interesting enough to make you wish the compilers of Boogie Breakdown had dug a little deeper for more of this type of diversity… assuming it was there to be found. In any case, the album closes with two synth-lite tracks from Al Etto which are more Billy Ocean than Cameo, more DeBarge than Prince.

Even in South Africa, those synths eventually got the best of everyone.





Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch Are 'Live at the Village Vanguard' to Raise Money for Musicians

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch release a live recording from a 2018 show to raise money for a good cause: other jazz musicians.


Lady Gaga's 'Chromatica' Hides Its True Intentions Behind Dancefloor Exuberance

Lady Gaga's Chromatica is the most lively and consistent record she's made since Born This Way, embracing everything great about her dance-pop early days and giving it a fresh twist.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Street Art As Sprayed Solidarity: Global Corona Graffiti

COVID-19-related street art functions as a vehicle for political critique and social engagement. It offers a form of global solidarity in a time of crisis.


Gretchen Peters Honors Mickey Newbury With "The Sailor" and New Album (premiere + interview)

Gretchen Peters' latest album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, celebrates one of American songwriting's most underappreciated artists. Hear Peters' new single "The Sailor" as she talks about her latest project.


Okkyung Lee Goes From Classical to Noise on the Stellar 'Yeo-Neun'

Cellist Okkyung Lee walks a fine line between classical and noise on the splendid, minimalist excursion Yeo-Neun.


Alastair Sim: A Very English Character Actor Genius

Alastair Sim belongs to those character actors sometimes accused of "hamming it up" because they work at such a high level of internal and external technique that they can't help standing out.


Joe Hertler & the Rainbow Seekers Head "Underwater" in New Video (premiere)

Celebrating the first anniversary of Paper Castle, folksy poppers Joe Hertler & the Rainbow Seekers release an uplifting new video for opening track, "Underwater".


Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's New LP Is Lacking in Songcraft but Rich in Texture

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's The Mosaic of Transformation is a slightly uneven listen. It generally transcends the tropes of its genre, but occasionally substitutes substance for style.


Buzzcocks' 1996 Album 'All Set' Sees the Veteran Band Stretching Out and Gaining Confidence

After the straightforward and workmanlike Trade Test Transmissions, Buzzcocks continued to hone their fresh identity in the studio, as exhibited on the All Set reissue contained on the new box-set Sell You Everything.


Patrick Madden's 'Disparates' Makes Sense in These Crazy Times

There's no social distancing with Patrick Madden's hilarious Disparates. While reading these essays, you'll feel like he's in the room with you.


Perfume Genius Purges Himself and It's Contagious

You need to care so much about your art to pack this much meaning into not only the words, but the tones that adorn and deliver them. Perfume Genius cares so much it hurts on Set My Heart on Fire Immediately.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Confinement and Escape: Emma Donoghue and E.L. Doctorow in Our Time of Self-Isolation

Emma Donoghue's Room and E.L. Doctorow's Homer & Langley define and confront life within limited space.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.